updated 10/23/2008 2:59:36 PM ET 2008-10-23T18:59:36

French police on Thursday suggested that mercury found in the car of a Russian lawyer who defends Kremlin foes was spilled accidentally.

Karinna Moskalenko previously said she and her family suffered headaches and nausea and she feared the mercury might have been planted to frighten or poison her. The discovery kept her away from the opening of the trial of three suspects in the slaying of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

But a Paris police official said the mercury came from a barometer that broke while being transported by the car's previous owner, an antiques dealer.

The official said a laboratory concluded the mercury was no longer dangerous. The official is not authorized to speak publicly about the case and asked for anonymity.

Several Russians who have criticized or angered the Kremlin — including Politkovskaya — have been victims of alleged poisoning attacks in recent years.

Politkovskaya fell seriously ill with food poisoning after drinking tea on a flight from Moscow in 2004, which prevented her from covering the hostage crisis in Beslan, in which more than 330 people were killed. Former KGB officer and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died in Britain in 2006 after ingesting radioactive polonium 210, weeks after Politkovskaya was gunned down.

Kasparov among clients
Moskalenko has represented imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky as well as Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and opposition leader detained last year during an anti-Kremlin protest.

She spends much of her time helping Russians press claims against the government at the European Court of Human Rights, which puts her at the forefront of challenges to Russia's international image.

Politkovskaya, whose reports on human rights abuses in Russia and especially Chechnya embarrassed the Kremlin, was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

The trial that started Wednesday in a military court in Moscow is the first in connection with her killing. It has already been marred by the absence of the suspected triggerman and the failure to determine who was behind the slaying.

"The crime is not solved yet. Only a small fraction of the people involved are on trial now," Politkovskaya's son Ilya said outside the courthouse.

Stavitskaya said the trial judge refused her request to postpone the initial hearings until Moskalenko could come to Moscow, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

However, the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency cited a defense lawyer as saying the judge set the next hearing for Nov. 17.

Lawyers for victims' relatives often play a significant role in Russian trials.

13 Russian journalists killed in 8 years
Politkovskaya's slaying deepened Western concerns about Russia's course and underscored the risks run by independent Russian journalists. She was one of at least 13 journalists killed in contract-style slayings during Vladimir Putin's eight-year presidency. Few suspects have been prosecuted.

Prosecutors say the man accused of pulling the trigger, Rustam Makhmudov, has fled to Western Europe. The suspects being tried on murder charges are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov — a former Moscow police officer — and Makhmudov's brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail.

A fourth man charged in the trial, Pavel Ryaguzov, is a Federal Security Service officer who is accused of criminal links with Khadzhikurbanov in an earlier case. He is no longer considered a suspect in Politkovskaya's killing, but his presence allows the trial to be held in a military court.

Prosecutors believe Khadzhikurbanov organized the killing, and that one Makhmudov brother followed the journalist and gave information on her movements to his brother, who then relayed those details to the shooter.

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